Nov 13

USS Lakatoi – A Short, but Heroic Life

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 12:01 AM


USS Lakatoi (Australian War Museum)

USS Lakatoi (Australian War Museum)

If there were a contest to find the U.S. Navy ship with the shortest career from commissioning to sinking, USS Lakatoi, with just six days, would certainly be a serious competitor. Its career was so short the ship never received a hull number. I would never have heard about the ship if not asked to find out the truth behind a “sea story.” The sea story began with an improbable premise – a U.S. Navy midshipman assigned to duty at Guadalcanal during the desperate days of 1942.

After extensive research, I found two of the four officers of USS Lakatoi, a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy, were midshipmen. I, and others amongst the more than fifty men who served as midshipmen in 1941 and 1942, believe they were the first serve in that or any capacity aboard a commissioned ship of the U.S. Navy in nearly 100 years.

The story of USS Lakatoi and its midshipmen begins on 16 December 1941 when Midshipmen Edward S. Davis and Robert H. Dudley, USNR, reported aboard USS George F. Elliott (AP 13) at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The Elliott operated for the next six months as a general troop transport in the Atlantic and Pacific. The ship’s assignment changed on 5 June 1942 when it started loading Marines and their equipment for the 7 August 1942 amphibious assault on Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal-Tulagi Operation 8 August 1942 (NHHC)

Guadalcanal-Tulagi Operation 8 August 1942 (NHHC)

According to Dudley’s report to the Supervisor of the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps, on 7 August he was one of USS George F. Elliott’s boat wave officers for the landings. The next day he remained behind as the officer in charge of one of the ship’s 3″ anti-aircraft guns. In that day’s air attack a Japanese aircraft hit by the ship’s anti-aircraft guns crashed onto the Elliott. After hours of futile attempts, the uncontrollable fires forced the crew to abandon ship. Most were rescued by USS Hunter Liggett (AP 27). Upon boarding the Hunter Liggett, Davis and Dudley joined their classmates Midshipmen Joseph W. Coleman and John J. Hagerty. Ordered to withdraw to Noumea, New Caledonia with the rest of the amphibious force USS Hunter Liggett, with George F. Elliott’s survivors, arrived there on 13 August 1942.

The evacuation of amphibious shipping left the Marines ashore short on supplies, especially food and ammunition. With the transports unable to return to Guadalcanal to finish discharging without a strong escort, an urgent need existed to resupply the Marines using stealthier means. One option was for smaller ships, operating without escort, to sneak in and out under the cover of darkness. The test ship for this assignment was the roughly 130′ long inter-island freighter M/V Lakatoi. However, the Navy believed the Lakatoi was sufficiently “ocean going” to undertake a mission that can only be described as one of utter desperation. The ship, crewed by volunteers, was expected to sail through roughly 1,500 miles of enemy controlled waters without being detected – and then sail back through the same waters so that they could repeat the mission.

The Navy[i] requested the indefinite loan of the vessel from the Army on 14 August with the stated intention of replacing its civilian crew with Navy personnel. The following day USS Lakatoi was commissioned, with Lieutenant Commander James Ian MacPherson, USNR, in command. MacPherson, formerly USS George F. Elliott’s Navigator, was an experienced merchant mariner and naval. He selected Lakatoi’s crew from among the Elliott’s survivors and the USS McCawley (AP-10). For his bridge officers he selected Midshipmen Davis and Dudley. Warrant Machinist Edwin Murdock was the Lakatoi’s Engineering Officer.

Richmond Turner 18 February 1944 (NHHC)

RADM Richmond K. Turner 18 February 1944 (NHHC)

On the afternoon of Monday, 17 August 1942 USS Lakatoi moored on the port side of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s[ii] flagship, USS McCawley, to make final preparations for its mission. Befitting the desperate nature of the enterprise, Admiral Turner made a personal inspection of USS Lakatoi with his staff. Thus, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Turner not only knew the ship’s crew included the two midshipmen, but personally met both Davis and Dudley. Further, Admiral Turner was in frequent contact with their classmate Midshipman Gordon R. Williams, who was assigned to his flagship until 28 August 28 1942.

After his personal inspection, Admiral Turner ordered the removal of some of Lakatoi’s topside weight and replacement of the existing .30 caliber machine guns with two .50 caliber guns. Ultimately, the most important change he ordered was likely an afterthought – the addition of two rubber life rafts to augment the Lakatoi’s lifeboats. Turner then ordered MacPherson to get USS Lakatoi underway for Tulagi at 0800 19 August 1942. MacPherson was to use a circuitous route[iii] and to arrive there at day break on 25 August. Upon arrival he would have just twelve hours to discharge the Lakatoi’s cargo and sail for Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. If the ship could not make this schedule it was to remain more than 250 miles from Tulagi and try again the next day. In keeping with its stealthy mission, MacPherson was ordered to maintain radio silence while listening for warnings transmitted to him by the Marines on Guadalcanal.

However, whatever Admiral Turner ordered be removed from the Lakatoi’s topsides, it did not include the cement slabs which had been previously placed around and on top of the wheelhouse and radio room as a form of “armor.” The Lakatoi’s civilian crew warned MacPherson that the ship rolled heavily, with the well deck forward being continually awash when fully loaded to its maximum 9′ draft. MacPherson reported he had loaded Lakatoi in accordance with the available stability information, which would not have taken into account the concrete slabs. So, despite MacPherson believing the ship was properly loaded, the ship’s stability was probably impaired when it finished loading its cargo.

USS Lakatoi got underway from USS McCawley’s side as ordered and cleared the Noumea harbor entrance two and one-half hours later. Upon departure McPherson reported making 10 knots in force 5 (17-21 knots) winds from the southeast. However, by that afternoon things were no longer going according to plan. The ship was making 3/4 of its planned speed, and rolling heavily. MacPherson’s description of the Lakatoi’s motion was ominous.

“During this period vessel was rolling from 15 to 20 degrees continually, the roll period being quick but with a sluggish recovery at the end of the roll, the lee side of the well deck being continually full of water.”

On 21 August, less than a week after commissioning, MacPherson reported that USS Lakatoi was laboring in gale force winds, very rough seas and a heavy southerly swell. Shortly after noon the ship lost its port lifeboat. MacPherson reported he put the wind and sea on the ship’s starboard quarter in an attempt to reduce rolling. These efforts proved to be fruitless. At 1305 a heavy sea struck USS Lakatoi on the port side causing the ship to immediately list heavily to port and to sheer off to the left. Within two minutes USS Lakatoi broached and then capsized roughly 400 miles north of New Caledonia[iv].

Despite the rapid sinking none of the crew were lost although several were injured. Distributed amongst the life boat and the two rubber rafts the twenty-nines survivors found very limited provisions[v]. Because the ship sank so fast MacPherson and the midshipmen had only the lifeboat’s compass, the sun and stars to navigate by. One of the survivors, Coxswain John L. “Jack” Scovil, who kept a detailed log of the voyage, wrote on 25 August,

“. . . We hoped and prayed to hit New Caledonia. I was thinking of Captain Bly [Bligh] and Mutiny on the Bounty and hoped Captain MacPherson knew as much as he did.”

Jack Scovil typed diary (Courtesy of the Author)

Jack Scovil typed diary (Courtesy of the Author)

The gale in which the Lakatoi foundered was so intense that it kept the survivors adrift for over two days. Finally, on the morning of 24 August the wind and seas moderated. MacPherson ordered the lifeboat’s sails set and steered in the general direction of New Caledonia, towing the unwieldy rafts.

Over the next week the survivors sailed when they could, and rowed when they could not on a southerly course. They reported freezing cold at night, broiling sun during the day and starvation rations throughout. Both MacPherson and Scovil reported a PBY patrol plane flew by them on 27 August, roughly 1/4 mile away at 500 feet. However, the plane apparently did not see them, so no report was made. On 31 August, just hours before sighting the north coast of New Caledonia, one survivor died of exhaustion and exposure. Around midnight the lifeboat with its two rafts crossed a coral reef and anchored for the night before trying to land on the beach in daylight. MacPherson reported he issued the last of the water, 1 ounce per man, and that in his opinion the rafts would not have lasted another day. The survivors finally set foot ashore at Passe d’Amos, about five mile east of Pam Head on the northeast coast of New Caledonia around 1030 2 September 1942, after nearly two weeks at sea.

MacPherson sent the three most physically able crew members to find help while the rest of the survivors searched for food and water. Around 1400 two of the three survivors returned with a local farmer who brought them a bucket of fresh water. The other sailor was taken by the farmer’s son to make contact with the U.S. Army’s beach patrol. Three hours later Army doctors and medics from the Second Field Hospital arrived to assist the survivors. Four of the survivors were evacuated by motor launch due to their debilitated state while the other twenty-four were evacuated by land.

The survivors remained at the Second Field Hospital until 16 September when they boarded USS Solace (AH 5). As the USS Lakatoi’s survivors suffered the loss of two ships within a very short period of time, RADM Turner recommended they return to the U.S. Most returned to the U.S. aboard USS Wharton (AP 7). However, the two Midshipmen left a few days earlier aboard a civilian passenger ship chartered to the Navy, MS Brastagi. In his endorsement of LCDR MacPherson’s report on the loss of USS Lakatoi, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, stated;

“The Commanding Officer and members of the crew of the U.S.S. Lakatoi displayed fortitude and heroism in keeping with the best traditions of the service.”

A month after walking ashore on New Caledonia six of USS Lakatoi’s crew, including LCDR MacPherson, Machinist Murdock, and four Sailors were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for their heroism. Scovil summarized their experience by closing his log with,

“It sure was an experience, but I don’t want any more of it.”

[i].Commander, South Pacific Force, then Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, USN

[ii].Commander Amphibious Force, South Pacific

[iii]. USS Lakatoi was to follow the following track, starting with point AFFIRM. AFFIRM, 21o 30’S 168o 15′ E; BAKER, 17o 48’S 167o 40’E; CAST, 13o 00’S 165o 00’E; Dog 10o 00’S 162o 00’E

[iv]. 18o 55’S, 167o 40’E

[v]. Four (4) gallons of water, 20 pounds of “hard tack”, six pounds of chocolate, 1200 “Horlock Thirst Tablets”, six 1-gallon cans of tomatoes and twenty 12oz cans of peaches in syrup.